By Fernando Ravsberg
Mariela Castro is the director of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), from where she along with hundreds of activists struggle to ensure respect for the rights of Cuba’s community of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals (LGBTs).
The daughter of the president of Cuba, Raul Castro, she has achieved important advances in making homophobia socially visible, authorizing free sex-change operations and bringing the community out of its marginalization by organizing its members in the defense of their rights.
This past weekend, activities centered around CENESEX during the observance of World Sexual Health Day, where books and audiovisual materials were presented, as well as workshops organized for young rockeros (rock fans), punks and emos – whose place in society is being questioned by part of society. Taking advantage of the occasion, Mariela granted us an exclusive interview.
Q: When did you begin work in the defense of the rights of the LGBT community?
A: Starting in 2000 we begin working more directly to give visibility to sexual rights, especially those of LGBT people, which had been greatly hampered by the prejudices of Cuban society.
Q: How much progress has been made since then?
A: Our ties with institutions have strengthened our position in society for bringing to light the issues we’re dealing with. This has served in training more professionals and strengthening the network of activists who work with CENESEX.
The dialogue that we’ve achieved with the Ideological Department of the Communist Party has been very important because, though at the beginning they were quite alarmed, now they’re our allies.
Q: But all those relationships haven’t served in getting the National Assembly to pass the Family Code, which is legislation that includes the rights of the LGBT community …
A: These obstacles demonstrate that the prejudices are even stronger than the institutions we hope to develop.
The Family Code is already edited but we know that the Ministry of Justice is re-editing it in an attempt to change it — based on their own prejudices — to make it different from what we’ve proposed. But if what they approve doesn’t respond to the rights of LGBT people, we won’t accept it. We regret that they haven’t included us in that debate, because they’re creating a puzzle out of what we proposed and their prejudices.
Q: How might this affect the alliance between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government?
A: I believe there should be alliances between all institutions in a society. The Catholic Church has been consistent in outlining its disagreement with what we’re doing, but it isn’t waging war against us. I don’t feel that they’re the obstacles.
Q: Your dad has spoken about discrimination against blacks, women, religious believers and even the youth. How is it that he hasn’t gotten to the point of mentioning the LGBT community?
A: Because evidently there are still many people close to him who are homophobic, so for him to achieve consensus is not going to be so easy. He’s introducing the issue; though he hasn’t been able to throw it open all at once.
According to what delegates who attended the 6th Party Congress told me, he spoke about the issue and said that it was now necessary to make decisions in this respect and to overcome those problems. That gave me a great deal trust and faith. I’m hoping this issue will be raised in the upcoming party conference [scheduled for January].
Q: What are the main obstacles?
A: The obstacles exist because prejudices dominate institutional decisions here, something that can change beginning with this general process of change that Cuba is going through. To the degree in that it continues to be participatory, like it began, that will facilitate this issue entering into the wheels of decision-making.
Q: Many people complain that it’s a waste of Public Health resources to provide free sex-change operations.
A: Here in Cuba, we don’t lack resources for life-or-death operations; if we don’t have them we go look for them. That was a position championed by Fidel and one, which fortunately has remained. Also, sex-change operations are not so expensive and they’re not performed on mere whims.
This is a question of law, and if public health is a right of everyone then people who are transsexual cannot be excluded. The sex change operations in the transsexual community reached a pinnacle with Wendy’s marriage.
Q: I remember hearing many of those same concerns of yours reflected in your mother’s (1) thinking?
A: Her work at the head of the Federation of Cuban Women gave her the opportunity to understand other problems, like those that stigmatize the LGBT community. Even in the era of UMAP (2) and the Quinquenio Gris (the Gray Five Year Period) (3), she was one of the voices that opposed those processes.
When the Family Code approved in 1974 or ’75 was presented, my mother proposed that marriage be considered “a union between two people,” so that homosexual couples wouldn’t have any problems.
My dad also conveyed much to me. Although people don’t know it, he was not in favor of many of these things (repression against gays) but he had to move within the consensus of a very complex circle.
Thanks to my mom, he didn’t agree. He came from a patriarchal and homophobic culture but he recognized that it could change thanks to her influence.
(1) Mariela Castro’s mother was Vilma Espin, a guerilla fighter from the Sierra Maestra mountains, president of the Federation of Cuban Women and the woman who served as a kind of “first lady” of the republic during the government of her brother-in-law, Fidel Castro.
(2) Military Units to Assist Production (UMAP) were rural work camps where homosexuals and other “non-conformists” were sent in the 1960s. After a couple of years these were dismantled.
(3) The “Gray Five Year Period” was the period in the 1970s of the cultural “sovietization” of Cuba, when many important intellectuals were ostracized because of their sexual preferences.
Originally published in The Havana Times